What is so morbid about talking about death and dying? We are all eventually going to die.
For the second time in October the Club 580 in Bancroft hosted a Gathering of Curious Minds on Saturday, Oct. 26 to discuss a subject often viewed as taboo. The topic on slate on this occasion was whether or not an individual facing a future of terminal illness, chronic pain and suffering ought to have the right to end his or her own life in a dignified manner.
“Different people have different opinions,” said co-organizer of the gathering Dagmar Gontard.
“Which brings us to the question of the respect of those opinions. Some people want to prolong life at all cost, while for others the question of the personal autonomy is more important than the length of life. In other words, the choice between the quantity and the quality.”
Gontard gave the example of the case of Margot Bentley from British Colombia who was diagnosed with dementia and is now in an advanced state of extreme disability. In 1991, Bentley indicated in her living will she was still of clear mind that she wanted no nourishment or liquids if there was not a reasonable expectation of her recovery from extreme physical or mental disability.
“She used to be a nurse, and saw patients who needed the help with every bodily function,” Gontard said.
“Margot did not see any quality in this kind of life. Margot’s decision was a rational one. Did she have the right to ask not to be fed nourishment or liquid if she ever developed an incurable medical condition? Do we have the right to decide about our body? I, and pro-choice people, will say: Yes. Whose body is it anyway? We’ve come a long way – we have the right to vote, we have the right to be equal, the right to choose or refuse work, etc. We still are missing that last freedom, choosing rationally the time of our death.”
Gontard believes death is a natural part of life, and feels strongly people should have the right to end their life in a peaceful way, free of suffering if that is what they choose. This approach, she said, requires the patient communicate his or her wishes to his or her loved ones and caregivers as clearly as possible.
“Physicians are not magicians, they are human beings,” Gontard said.
“We need more communication between the patient and the family; between the patient and the doctor; and between the doctor and the medical support. If everyone involved has a better understanding of what the patient needs and wants it can only help.”
Lightening the mood with his opening remark Allan Hammond from the organization Dying with Dignity, joked in regards to the unfolding Senate scandal in Ottawa.
“It looks like soon there will be the death of the senate,” said Hammond.
“I hope there will be dying with dignity although it doesn’t look too promising does it. I don’t think they have an advanced care directive either, so we are not in as much trouble as they are.”
The organization Dying with Dignity works with people who want to end their life in a peaceful and dignified manner that doesn’t conflict with existing law. To help ensure patients are able to do this Hammond recommends filling out an advanced care directive. This document provides people with the opportunity to state their medical priorities in the event that they cannot do so.
“The document asks a series of questions giving a person various circumstances in which a person may contemplate ending their own life,” Hammond said.
“Advanced dementia, Alzheimer’s, or any acute life-threatening illness of an irreversible nature are examples. Other examples are being hooked up to a respirator, or whether you want to be fed if you can no longer feed yourself.”
The document is not biased, said Hammond, as it gives individuals the option to demand care if that is their choice.
“Another option you can check off is: I desire that my life be prolonged and that I be provided all life-sustaining treatments applicable to my medical condition,” said Hammond.
Furthermore, Hammond said another thing individuals can do to assemble their own personal end-of-life plan is to designate a power of attorney for personal care who understands his or her wishes.
Co-owner of Camp Ponacka on Baptiste Lake, Anne Morawetz travelled to Bancroft with her husband to share her experience of being in this difficult position, and having to honour her mother’s wish to die with dignity. Morawetz’s mother was a proud member of Dying with Dignity. Because she had openly discussed her wishes with her daughter and other members of the family it was clear what she needed to do after her mother suffered a stroke while at her home on Baptiste Lake.
“The medical staff said they wanted to put in an IV, and I certainly felt they wanted to keep her comfortable so that was fine,” said Morawetz.
“Later in the day they said she had too much fluid, so they asked if they should take it out and not put it back in. That was really the question saying if we don’t do that it will hasten her death. Knowing our mother’s wishes it was obvious to us that we had to say no.”
Since this experience Morawetz and her husband have both filled out advanced care directives, and made their daughter the power of attorney.
“We were so impressed with the care, the understanding and the lack of pressure from the medical support staff,” Morawetz said.
“I think people don’t realize how great a hospital they have here in Bancroft”